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The definitive guide to “show, don’t tell”

‘Show, don’t tell’ is great advice…in theory. In practice, it’s not that simple. We asked six acclaimed authors for their best advice on finding the right balance between the two elements in fiction.

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Developing specific and concrete details

Showing is clearly of great value in fiction writing. This being the case, how do you go about bringing in details to flesh out your stories and novels? What’s your process? What’s a good place to start?

Sickels often starts his stories with place, which gets him into “thinking about smells and sounds and sensory language.” He then starts “thinking about characters existing in that place.” He’s soon relating actions to motives as well as to feelings: “If I write a scene with my character walking through the woods or sitting in a desolate, lonely bar or rummaging through an attic, then I want to know why she’s there and how this place makes her feel. The physicality and particular details of the place start to open the story up, create texture and fullness, and draw me in – both as a reader and as a writer.”

Scharer starts with character actions, those that reveal “how they feel/think, rather than simply telling the reader how they feel/think.” Later, she “layers interiority on top of the actions.” As an example, she says, “If my character is angry, I’ll show her getting ready for a date and stabbing her hairpins into her hair so hard that she jabs one into her scalp. To me, this captures her anger in a clear, vivid way. But perhaps it’s not quite clear enough to the reader, so later, I’ll go back into the scene and layer in some more of her thinking as she performs the action.”

Fincke’s early story drafts focus on both character action and dialogue. “Those are my ways to character – their voices, their tone, the words they choose to say aloud reveal who they are in combination with what they do (and avoid doing),” he says. It’s only in later drafts that he works in “details about appearance and location.” While this involves a certain amount of deliberateness, he’s quick to say, “What I’m doing, by then, is erecting road signs, not building the road itself.”

Perinot also begins with character, using POV characters to “weave detail” into her novels. “Whenever practical, having characters notice things is a more interesting way of showing them to the reader than if an author recited those same details (tell, tell, tell).” But do be sure, she cautions, “that the details you choose to have your character observe would actually be details they’d notice.”

Describing everyday objects, she explains, can become problematic in historical fiction: “Readers are not familiar with objects of daily life in past centuries, but our POV characters are entirely comfortable with them. Under such circumstances, showing can become tricky.” Her advice: Avoid characters serving a merely expository function, or what she calls “reader-education.”

Characters, places, objects – what about symbolism? How do you manage that?

If Fincke’s process amounts to a measure of deliberateness in developing characters and setting, his handling of symbolism doesn’t. For that, he depends on reader involvement or interpretation. “My job is to show the world of my characters as authentically and accurately as possible, choosing details that stay with the reader because they become significant. If a reader sees symbolism in that significance, that’s one more way of seeing. I’ve sometimes been surprised by readers claiming such symbolism and appreciate, for sure, that someone has read a story so closely.”

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“I enjoy creating symbolism,” says Mustafah, “but I’m careful to avoid contrived or forced motifs.” For instance, she says, in The Beauty of Your Face, “I play with objects that represent powerful cultural identity and conflicts with assimilation.” Her novel’s protagonist “carries from place to place an old record player on which her father played music to improve his English. It at once evokes her father’s love of music (he is an oud player) and the experience of belonging to a new place.”

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